By David May
16 February 2018
It was a speech that few Middle East observers will forget. During his January 14 tirade before the PLO Central Council, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a slew of conspiratorial and anti-Semitic comments. Abbas accused Israel of deliberately creating a drug problem among Palestinians and attempted to undermine the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. The Palestinian president also threatened to “publish a blacklist of 150 companies who work with the settlements.” After Abbas’ hours-long oratory, the PLO Central Council declared that it would “adopt the BDS movement and call on world countries to impose sanctions on Israel,” referring to Israel as an “apartheid regime.”
This was not the first time that the Palestinian leadership has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In 2010, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad carried out a campaign to urge Palestinians to boycott Israeli goods from the West Bank. PA officials subsequently went door-to-door to promote the campaign and pledge to boycott these Israeli products.
While attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa in 2013, Abbas declared, “No, we do not support the boycott of Israel.” However, the Embassy of the State of Palestine to South Africa issued a joint statement with BDS South Africa, declaring that the Palestinian leadership does not oppose BDS. Abbas then called for “everyone to boycott the products of the settlements.”
In March 2015, the PLO Central Council affirmed the “continuation of boycotting Israeli goods as a form of popular resistance,” and called upon the international community to “boycott Israeli goods.” Then, at the African Union assembly in June 2015, Abbas advocated for a boycott of goods from Israeli-controlled territories.
In an October 2016 interview with The Arab Weekly, Nabil Shaath, Abbas’ top foreign affairs adviser, said that “The Palestinians can still defeat Israel” with the help of a consumer boycott. During his 2017 UN General Assembly speech, Abbas said, “I call on all states to end all forms of direct and indirect involvement with and support to, the illegal Israeli colonial settlement regime.” In October 2017, Saleem al-Za’noon, Speaker of the Palestine National Council, wrote, “We also call on the Pan-African Parliament to adopt the BDS initiative including boycotting Israeli settlement goods...” Abbas has laid the groundwork for his gradual support of BDS.
Among the biggest proponents of BDS within Abbas’ inner circle is his Fatah deputy, Mahmoud al-Aloul. Al-Aloul has often declared that “all forms of resistanceare legitimate,” an allusion to his support for violence against Israelis. In 2015, then-PLO executive committee member Mahmoud al-Aloul warned Palestinian companies that they must remove all goods produced by six of Israel’s largest companies. Aloul went on to say, “It's the first among several steps to boycott all Israeli goods that reach the Palestinian market.”
According to a March 2017 audio tape obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, al-Aloul said, “We have relations with BDS, our people work there, and we have delegates there. We cooperate with BDS on all levels, and not only with the BDS, but every group whose aim is to boycott Israel, we are with. Every group working to lay siege on Israel and isolate it from the world, we are with it.” In a separate recording from August 2017, when asked, “Do you, as the PA, support BDS?” al-Aloul replied, “Yes, of course.” While these quotes come from audio recordings that have not been independently verified, they are in line with al-Aloul’s previous statements.
In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution in which it called upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, to “produce a database” of companies operating in Israeli-controlled areas. Critics of the database have argued that the broad parameters for this blacklist are not limited to human rights violators; merely operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are grounds for inclusion. Prince Zeid reportedly wrote a letter to the United Nations imploring it to divest from companies included in the blacklist, indicating that the blacklist is deliberately designed to facilitate a boycott.
The United States has opposed the database and pressured the United Nations not to publish the blacklist. The list was supposed to be published in February 2017 but was delayed until December 2017. On January 31, 2018, al-Hussein released his report alleging that 206 companies – 22 of which are American – have assisted Israel’s presence in the West Bank, without actually naming the companies. Al-Hussein has pledged to release the names at a later date.
Since 2014, Abbas has eschewed direct talks with Israel, preferring to attack the Jewish state in the international arena and engage in ill-fated reconciliation attempts with the terrorist group Hamas. Now, with his back against the wall, as he finds himself isolated from the Arab states and the Trump administration, Abbas seems to be embracing economic warfare against Israel as a national strategy. The decision, while perhaps a long time coming, seems to underscore that the aging Palestinian leader has run out of strategies. The move to support economic warfare will almost certainly prove to be an obstacle to peace and undermine Abbas’ remaining legitimacy.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.